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Case study: Shop.Microsoft.com

The Microsoft shopping site holds your hand pretty tightly, with clear labels for sections ("Billing Info," "Shipping Info"), clues about your progress ("Checkout (Step 1 of 2)"), and advice next to groups of fields, such as "Select a shipping option and enter a shipping address if different from your billing address."

You can see that the writers have chosen a pretty tight style here, opting for the short form of information, ampersands instead of ands, and one sentence to explain as many as a dozen fields.

The tone is impersonal but efficient. No joking around, but no hectoring, either.

Unable to explain shipping options in a phrase, the writers offer a link into the middle of a list of Common Questions (a FAQ).

Unfortunately, I was deposited at the wrong spot, a few questions below the target.

When I scrolled up, I went past the right answer, and then slowly inched down to the info I wanted.

Once I got there, the text went beyond the usual, explaining that shipping times are from the moment the box leaves the warehouse, but it might take Microsoft a day or two to get the box ready.

"Expected processing time is two business days."

A lot of customers think that "2nd day" means that their package will arrive within two days of the order, and when nothing shows up, they start calling customer support in outrage.

Here the writers--twice--emphasize that shipping times start after the package is ready to go. Good job!

Of course, I'd like a personal and active style, more like "We usually get your order ready for shipping within two business days. (We don't work on weekends.)" Now that kind of confession would be good for business, I think.

Related article

Creating customer assistance that actually helps, from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works (2002, PDF, 993K, or about 18 minutes at 56K)


Typical customer assistance on shop.microsoft.com. (2002)

When I clicked FINALIZE my Order, without having filled in my address, I caught hell. First a giant "Attention" came up in red, with the self-pitying complaint from the verification routine: "The following errors were encountered." I had 16 errors, all in red, and all in the self-centered prose of system-centric messages, such as "Billing E-mail Address is a required field and was blank or only contained invalid characters." Bad user! Showing me a list like this makes me think I have to memorize each of my mistakes, go back to the earlier page, and atone, line by line. If I forget, I think, I will get another lecture. Actually, when I scroll down to the last message, I discover the top of the form again, where, helpfully, the labels of all fields that need data show up in red. I could have used a little labeling next to or within the list of errors, telling me to scroll down and try again. (But maybe the team never imagined anyone would be such an idiot as to make 16 mistakes on one form, driving the form out of sight, below).

The tone of these messages is a little like the barking of an accusatory grammar teacher telling me that I have made a series of "errors," I have not done something that was "required," and I may have used "invalid characters." The case against me is pretty damning.

So, despite working hard to offer assistance to customers, the site team sometimes focuses on its own concerns, its requirements--and my sins. They rarely tell me how to fix the problems. Of 16 error messages, only one tells what to do to fix the mistake (the others tell me what they needed or expected, and what data was missing, leaving it up to me to figure out the right way to behave). Net result: despite a good effort at assistance, the team has not completely overcome a tendency to be self-centered and arrogant.


Is this what I ordered?


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